Friday, May 22, 2015
Forgotten Books: LADY IN PERIL by Lester Dent (1959)
I enjoyed reading this book, but didn't really like it. Does that make sense? It's the last of four Dent novels I've been hoarding for thirty years and waiting for the right moment to read. Maybe I chose the wrong moment. More likely, though, there was never a right one.
Lester Dent was a great pulp writer, and every story I've read, including dozens of his Doc Savage adventures, has delivered the goods. As a novelist, though, he seems to have been on uncertain ground. Dead at the Take-Off (discussed HERE) is a pretty good book, and Lady Afraid (HERE) is okay too. Cry at Dusk (HERE) is a sick mess. And Lady in Peril, I'm sorry to say, is a snoozer.
But I enjoyed reading it? Yeah, I've admired Dent's style since I was thirteen years old, and it still has a hold on me. He just pulls me along, word by word, phrase by phrase, and it goes down painless. But in this case, he didn't take me anywhere except to the end of the book, and he left me there unsatisfied.
The problem, I think, is that he was trying to do too much. Having long since proved he could write a good mystery, he was flirting here with serious themes - the stuff of literature - and got bogged down somewhere inbetween.
The hero of this one, a guy named Loneman, is a lobbyist for an agricultural co-op in Jefferson Ctiy, Missouri. The conflicts driving the plot, involving politics and the food business, are more adult than those in your typical Dent story. Nothing wrong with that, and when Loneman's brother-in-law is killed, the story is off to a promising start. Unfortunately, the subplot (the "serious" stuff) gets in the way.
Loneman, it seems, is a workaholic who has taken his wife for granted to the extent that she has come to doubt her own self worth, Her brother's murder somehow compels her to solve the crime on her own, to prove something to herself and to her husband. There are serious psychological and relationship issues here, but they simply don't jell with the mystery. The wife's strange actions seem contrived to create false suspense. I assume Dent meant her to be a sympathetic character, but she comes off as merely annoying,
On the plus side, the book is set in Dent's home state of Missouri, so it provides a nice snapshot of his world. Despite the plot problems, a good dose of Dent's trademark humor might have saved the day. But no such luck. Loneman, the wife, and everyone else in the story take themselves way too seriously. I seriously didn't care whether any of them lived or died.